The Nation

BURNING ISSUE

It's time for populism as polls loom

The countdown to the general elections has begun, and it is now time for political parties to boost their popularity among the voters.

Rival parties have come up with different methods and means to woo votes and eventually win as many House seats as possible. Votes can be won through policy platforms and promises to voters, in addition to the support obtained through a complex system of patronage and downright vote-buying.Policy platforms tend to be mostly populist as they have been proven to be the deciding factor behind election victories in the past. That's why all the competing parties have been aggressively presenting their populist policies to the voters.The ruling Democrat Party - the core partner in the current ruling coalition - has been eagerly selling its populist policies of "Pracha Wiwat" and "welfare society". The goal is to boost the party's popularity as well as to overshadow the populist policy promises made by the Thaksin Shinawatra camp.During the remaining time in power, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat leader, is likely to go full steam ahead with populist policies that could help defeat the Pheu Thai Party in the upcoming general elections expected by mid-year.On Monday, the Cabinet resolved to give a pay rise to state-enterprise employees whose monthly salaries were less than Bt50,000, with effect from April 1. Low-income public officials also will get a 5-per-cent salary increase. The Cabinet also gave the green light for a one-month bonus to employees of five state-run commercial banks - Government Savings Bank, Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, Government Housing Bank, Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank of Thailand, and Islamic Bank of Thailand.The latest Cabinet decisions have been viewed as a bid by the Democrats to woo voters. The generous benefits are just the latest in a series of projects by the Democrat-led government, such as free education for 15 years from kindergarten to Grade 12, free universal public health, monthly allowances for people aged over 60, village funds for the elderly, free public utilities and transit services, and a project to help borrowers of illegal loans.During the past New-Year period, the Democrat-led government introduced the Pracha Wiwat policy to offer "presents to the Thais", with focus on low-income people like street vendors, motorcycle-taxi riders, and taxi-cab drivers. That policy has also been viewed as a bid to win popularity for the Democrat Party. Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said the measures would bring about benefits worth as much as Bt26 billion to some 10 million people, although no more than Bt2 billion would be spent from state funds.Moreover, the prime minister announced that his party would also, among other things, boost incomes of people by raising the minimum daily wages by 25 per cent within two years, and reducing the costs for business operators through reform in the tax system and tax cuts for imported machinery. As for the Pheu Thai Party, the original proponent of populist policies, the chief of its economic team - former finance minister Suchart Thadathamrongvej - announced that its policy platforms had been completed and that they only needed the final stamp of approval from former premier Thaksin, who is believed to be pulling the strings.Pheu Thai has decided to go ahead with its election campaign of "five moderns" covering law, trade and commerce, technology, a society that is drugs-free, and a modern country. As far as populist policies are concerned, Pheu Thai has promised to immediately raise minimum daily wages to Bt300, lower taxes to attract more foreign investors, reduce public debt, a guaranteed minimum monthly salary of Bt15,000 for every new graduate, rice-paddy price of Bt15,000 for each kwian (one metric tonne), no collection of oil tax, five-year debt moratorium for households with debts not exceeding more than Bt500,000, and advanced WiFi and Wimax Internet connections throughout the country.The Bhum Jai Thai Party, the third largest political party, also is focusing on populist policies ahead of the upcoming election. The party has promised better benefits for the elderly, farmers and poor people in general, in addition to free medical services.Smaller parties like the coalition Chart Thai Pattana and the new Pracha Santi have not focused on populist policies. They instead offer themselves as a neutral choice in the ongoing political conflict that has divided the country.

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